Radio theater is alive and well -- on Delmarva


The sound engineer for the Eastern Shore program "Radio from Downtown" was incorrectly identified in yesterday's paper. Jim Smith is the "knob-twiddler" for the program.

The Sun regrets the error.

SALISBURY -- There was a time when radio theater -- plays, entertainment, variety acts -- flourished at stations across the country. Then came rock, FM, drive time and talk shows.

But, like clover in a brick sidewalk, here and there radio theater still blossoms. Nationally, there's Garrison Keillor's weekly "American Radio Company." On the Delmarva Peninsula, there's Van Williamson's bimonthly "Radio From Downtown."

"Nobody else is nuts enough to actually mount this," says the 50-year-old Salisbury resident, his voice tinged with rueful pride. "This is not a cost-effective radio program."

Maybe not yet. But Mr. Williamson's radio program has a lot going for it: It's funny, it's topical and it's home-grown talent. Writers, painters, singers, musicians, accordion players, dancers, even a Delmarva man who's made a name for himself as Black Elvis -- Radio From Downtown brings Mr. Williamson's hand-picked mix of jazz, dance, strange entertainment and a radio drama to Easton's historic Avalon Theater every other month.

"It's a good show," Mr. Williamson said last week as he prepared for tonight's production. "It's sort of an across-the-board arts showcase. I think it would be fair to say we span the spectrum of talent."

"The spectrum of listenability," agreed sound engineer Jim Fisher, the self-described "knobtwiddler" who is responsible for getting the show onto tape. The show is independently produced by Mr. Williamson and two Delmarva stations broadcast it the day after it is performed on stage.

Entertainers in the show get paid at rates Mr. Williamson describes as "two-thirds decent now, as opposed to half-decent." But the real payoff is the chance to appear onstage in a forum with few restrictions.

"You can pretty much do anything if you have the temerity not to worry too much about if you're going to crash and burn," Mr. Williamson says cheerfully. "I am willing to stick my neck out for the most threadbare reasons. People love to be on the show. I've rarely been turned down."

That anything-goes feeling was apparent in July, when local writer Helen Chappell read from her "The Oysterback Tales," the Bellows Babes wielded their accordions, and the entire cast, scripts in hand, gathered around the stage microphones for the show's centerpiece, an original radio play by Mr. Williamson and his collaborator, Jack Purdy.

Although the show moved briskly and smoothly, drawing plenty of laughter and applause from the crowd in the Avalon, it also had a strong flavor of improvisation and spontaneity. Offstage sound effects for the play were frequent and inventive, allowing the audience to experience the show almost as a radio listener would.

Most of the entertainment acts change for each show. But there are some constants: Mr. Williamson and Mr. Purdy write the play and some of the stand-up comedy bits, the jazz band is always Swing Shift and Mr. Fisher handles the taping.

Tonight's show is typically eclectic and spicy: Black Elvis, singer Karen Goldberg, author Richard Ben Cramer and tap dancer Kelli Barron will all perform, area reporter Joe Forsthoffer will describe his trip to the top of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and actor David Foster will portray H. L. Mencken.

Like its predecessors, tonight's radio play will be laced with local culture: it's the story of what happens when an embittered Delmarva doctor unleashes a virulent virus on the peninsula.

"There's no end, no end of stuff you can do," says Mr. Williamson. "That's the great thing about living here." Inspiration for "RFD" sketches and jokes can come from local industry -- one play was called "The Good, The Bad and The Chicken" -- and the unusual names of some area towns in the area have awakened his muse, he says.

There are no rehearsals until the day of the show. At 9 a.m. on Saturday, the performers all gather at the Avalon for two run-throughs, mostly so Mr. Williamson and Mr. Fisher can be sure the show will fit into a two-hour format. Because it's radio, the performers read from scripts on stage; no memorization required.

"It's not brain surgery, it's not Chekhov!" explains Mr. Williamson.

But "RFD" does draw on his extensive experience in radio. After graduating from San Francisco State, he taught music before becoming a news and airborne traffic reporter for San Francisco radio stations -- an experience he said taught him to "speak in complete sentences."

Originally from Chevy Chase, he decided to return to Maryland in and chose Salisbury because his parents live nearby in Delaware. "RFD" began in 1989 as "Radio Free Delmarva," a live jazz show, when he worked for WSCL, an NPR affiliate station on the campus of Salisbury State. It filled a moribund Saturday night slot, Mr. Williamson recalled.

"I told the program director, 'I can go in there once a month and play some jazz tunes and talk about jazz,' " Mr. Williamson recalls. "So I called up some friends and said, 'Let's play live on the radio.' That was the first show."

As the show gained listeners, some began coming into the studio to hear the band live, and the show began to evolve into what it is today: a mixed bag of entertainers who do their separate bits, then join forces to read the parts in a radio play.

But a new station general manager began quibbling with the show's content. Finally, Mr. Williamson just stopped doing it.

Local people remembered the show, and would ask him about it -- "even two years later!" So in April, he decided to revive it and produce it independently. The show gets some money from ticket and T-shirt sales, plus a $1,000 grant from a state arts council. It does not receive money from the two stations that rebroadcast it the next day.

"We're going to approach some businesses" about sponsoring the show, Mr. Williamson says. Ticket sales are the main thing, he says: "It mostly depends on getting the bodies in the seats." For "RFD," the theater will have about 300 seats.

Money uncertainties notwithstanding, he is committed to "RFD" living on as an exercise in the power and art of radio.

"In order to do this, you have to be able to step outside yourself," he says. "This is the coolest thing I could be doing . . . it's like making art with your friends."


"Radio From Downtown" will perform at 7:30 p.m. today at the Avalon Theater, 40 E. Dover St. (across from the Tidewater Inn) in Easton. The show's band, Swing Shift, will play a half-hour set before taping begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. For information or to reserve tickets, call the Avalon Theater at (410) 822-0345. The taped show will be broadcast tomorrow by two Eastern Shore stations: WESM-FM (91.3) from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and WCEI-AM (1460) from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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